External and Internal Motivation

If you’ve read The Simple Dollar for very long, you know that my children play a major role in motivating me to make good financial choices. I want them to have childhood security and to have every educational opportunity that I can provide for them, at least up until their college education. I use them as daily inspiration to make good choices and although I’m far from perfect at making good choices, their inspiration makes a tremendous difference.

Here’s the problem with that picture: someday, my children will grow up and leave the nest. My youngest child is three years old. In twenty years, he will have graduated from college. My two older children will (hypothetically) be firmly established in their own adult lives.

Will my motivation remain at that point? Obviously, I will still care for them and I’ll still be there to give advice (I still get advice from my own parents, after all), but my parenting responsibilities will be largely complete.

My big reason for making those good choices will have largely disappeared.

As my children grow up and leave and my core motivation for financial change goes away, will I regress back into poor financial choices?

My natural response is that I have Sarah. We do a great job of encouraging each other to make better choices almost all the time. The drawback here is that even though Sarah is incredibly reliable, there’s no guarantee she will always be there. Any number of things could befall her.

The only person that I know will always be with me, right to the end of my life, is me. If I want to maintain good moves throughout my whole life, I need to find internal motivations for those good choices, not just external ones.

Sarah and my children are both external motivators. They are constant encouragement for me to be the best that I can be, but they may not always be there. If they fall away, will my healthy habits fall away?

The conclusion here is simple: I need to find strong sources of internal motivation for good financial choices in my life.

Where do those come from, though? It is often really tricky to find that kind of internal motivation, especially when there are so many little temptations out there in life. When I’m feeling a strong desire for buying something, what can I lean on inside of me to overcome it?

Here’s what I’ve been able to figure out over the past few years.

I try to make the “good” choices feel as good as possible. If I walk away from a temptation, I encourage as many positive feelings about that choice as possible. I want my self-control to feel good. So, I’ll internally pat myself on the back hard. I’ll tell myself that I’m doing a great job in my head and I’ll push forward every positive feeling I can muster.

Similarly, I try to make an association of “bad” feelings with making the poor financial choice. At the same time, I also think about the bad results if I make the “bad” choice. I try to associate negative feelings with giving into that temptation.

I set clear long-term goals for myself, ones that don’t rely on anyone else. My dream is to reach a point where I can spend my days writing fiction (which, honestly, doesn’t earn a lot unless you’re on Stephen King’s level) and doing volunteer work. That’s something that doesn’t rely on anyone else. I try to associate that personal dream with making the “good” choice and associate that dream slipping away with making the “bad” choice.

I complement all of this with the external motivations. I use these hand in hand with motivations that involve my wife and my children. I don’t rely on internal or external motivators exclusively; I try to use both of them to push me in the right direction.

Because of all of this, I believe that good financial choices will continue in my life regardless of what happens. Things may change in the future, but my internal choices will remain strong (at least to the best of my abilities right now).

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